TED2009: psychologist Jennifer Mather


Psychologist Jennifer Mather is on stage at TED2009. She has been studying the minds of squids and octopuses. On a scuba expedition she witnessed an octopus build a wall of stone around its home, and she believes that cephalopod molluscs are much smarter than previously thought.

Are we the only intelligent beings in the Universe? Look to the oceans -- they are precious and we have to save them.

Octopuses as intelligent animals is that they are different from us (different branch on tree of live, different evolutionary paths). This makes it interesting to compare how they are smart and how we are smart.

When cephalopod lost shell, they had to come up with some good tricks (to survive) -- exquisite senses and very good brains being the main two.

Shows an amazing photo of octopus camouflage -- they are the real chameleons.

Octopuses have eyes similar to mammalian eyes. They have 8 arms -- "We call them arms, not tentacles, by the way."

What might indicate intelligence -- personalities, play, problem solving.

1. Personalities. Aquarium volunteers give names to different octopuses, because they have different personalities. She read about temperament and starting with observation. You turn your back on the normal scientific procedure we think about, Instead expose animals to common situations, then you run the through and record different behaviors, determine which ones are common, use statistical tools. One thing -- touching the octopuses with bottle brush. Some got mad and fought, some fled. They found three separate dimensions -- active, reactive, avoidant. So there's a background for developing intelligence.

2. Play. What is play? Out of context, fragmentary or repetitious, not immediately adaptive, simple. You won't play unless you are comfortable, well fed, and bored. They gave octopuses a floating pill bottle (neutrally buoyant). Initialy they grabbed it and brought it up to their mouth. After a while, the octopus would squirt a jet of water to the bottle to send it to the water intake, which would make it drift back to the octopus. She did it 20 times. "She's bouncing the ball!" Play is using inteligence, picking up info, storing it for the future.

3. Problem solving. Clams are a problem. They are in an arms race with their predators. Over the millennia, clams get stronger and octopus get smarter at opening them. They have strong arms, parrot-like beak, can secret acid with tooth covered organ to open clams. Scientist wired shut an easy-to-pull-open species of clam, and the octopus shifted its usual opening method (from pulling apart to chipping and drilling).

Octopuses have big brain, but not a highly developed nervous system. They are quick to learn, but equally quick to forget. Why? They have a short life. Sexuality is relegated to end of life span, it doesn't get in the way of their intelligence. They give us a chance to understand intelligence from a different model.